Fans of Broadway musicals won’t get more bang for their entertainment buck this whole season than at Something Rotten! Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre has been on a roll when it comes to offering great touring shows with top-flight casts. But Something Rotten! is something else.
The musical by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick (score) and John O’Farrell (book) opened on Broadway in March 2015, running all that year and the next. It generated great word-of-mouth and attracted bushels of prestige nominations, which in most normal years it might have won. But that was Fun Home’s season.
Something Rotten! would have won hands-down, though, as audience pick for Most Inspired Silliness In A Show Not Titled Spamalot.
For the record, the current touring production enjoyed the single longest ovation by a Baltimore audience at any show in memory. (Admittedly, my memory is not as good as it used to be.) It followed the hilarious production number of the song “A Musical,” whose premise I will explain shortly. Someone actually counted the number of drive-by references to other musical theater milestones contained in the song and came up with a list of forty shows. We’re talking musical lovers’ heaven here.
Now, as to that premise:
Set at the end of the Renaissance in the late 1500s, the play focuses on the Bottom brothers, Nick and Nigel, two men of the theater toiling unseen in the long shadow of Shakespeare. Nigel is the sensitive, poetic brother, while Nick is the ambitious Bottom who yearns to be on top.
So Nick avails himself of the services of a quirky soothsayer named Nostradamus (no, not that one, just a nephew) for ideas from the future that he can use to get a jump on the Bard of Avon. The first idea is the concept of “A Musical,” which Nostradamus explains with all the self-referential zaniness alluded to above. (Nostradamus foresees everything from Cole Porter chorus lines to Bob Fosse hands and something about a fiddler on a roof.)
The second idea is an actual future Shakespeare hit, which the soothsayer misperceives as a play about a gloomy Danish prince titled Omelette. Hence the Bottom brothers set out to create Omelette — The Musical. (Hence, too, the title derived from that odiferous state of Denmark: Something Rotten!)
There is a subplot involving the romance of shy Nigel and the feisty daughter of a local Puritan elder. And one centering on the determination of Nick’s proto-feminist wife, Bea, to shatter whatever passed for a glass ceiling around the time of the Black Plague.
Mostly, however, we are given lots and lots of “inside theater” jokes, riffs on common Shakespearean lore, and the most fun on-stage rivalry between artists since Salieri took on Mozart.
Adam Pascal, who was the original Roger Davis in Rent both on and off-Broadway, plays the young Will Shakespeare here as a strutting and pompous 21st-century-style superstar. Pascal is a sheer delight in his Vegas-ready showstopper, “Will Power,” then more than holds his own in a blazing tap-shoe “challenge dance” dreamed up by Nick.
Rob McClure, another Broadway veteran in the touring cast, is a sensation as Nick. With his Bruce Willis widow’s peak and impish smile, McClure proves he can out-sell and out-hoof any born stage clown in his height range. He commands the stage in his hilarious solo “God, I Hate Shakespeare” then shows a similar affinity for harmonic sweetness in the more-or-less serious “To Thine Own Self.”
Josh Grisetti recreates his Broadway role as introspective brother Nigel. Grisetti has fun showing how this unsung sibling blossoms as he learns about love from Portia (“I Love the Way”) and about believing in himself.
Autumn Hurlbert as Portia and Maggie Lakis as Bea are both strong new additions to the show. Each proves herself more than just a pretty face, acing the goofier comedy chores as effortlessly as the less frequent vocal challenges.
Almost stealing the show with a flair for comic pantomime is Scott Cote as Brother Jeremiah, the prancing Puritan watchdog. Blake Hammond also performs a star turn worthy of Zero Mostel in that showy centerpiece role of Nostradamus.
Nick Rashad Burroughs sets the whole show off on a professional path with his expressive body language as the Minstrel who greets us with his “Welcome to the Renaissance.” And Jeff Brooks gets lots of unexpected laughs as Shylock, the New World’s first Jewish stage producer.
Scott Pask’s Scenic Designs are amusingly colorful illustrations of the Bottom brothers’ vaudeville universe. All of the technical contributions made for this national tour are just as professionally handled, from the Lighting Design of Jeff Croter to the Sound Design of Peter Hylenski, and the witty Costume Designs of Gregg Barnes.
Director and Choreographer Casey Nicholaw brings the same level of precision and comic timing here as he did to his original Broadway staging of The Book of Mormon. His staging of the numbers “A Musical” and “Make an Omelette” provide the expansive, take-away moments, but his “Bottom’s Gonna Be On Top” challenge dance may cram almost as much flash into just four feet.
The live musical direction of Bryan P. Kennedy (from the orchestrations of Glen Kelly and Larry Hochman) captures all the wild imagination and slapstick fun of the score.
If you love musicals, you won’t find a more blissful two-and-a-half hours of fun anywhere on the planet.
Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Something Rotten! plays through through April 23, 2017, at the Hippodrome Theatre at The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center – 12 North Eutaw Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call (800) 982-ARTS, or purchase them online.